This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the legality of racial preferences used by Harvard University in its admissions process. The stated goal of these preferences is to increase the racial and socioeconomic diversity of the student body, but Harvard’s extensive use of legacy and other preferences makes achieving this goal difficult.
Harvard combines four separate preferences, which it calls “ALDC,” short for athletic recruits, legacies (relatives of Harvard alumni), children of faculty and staff, and candidates on the Dean’s List of Interests, who are primarily relatives of major donors. . The problem for Harvard is that most of the ALDCs are admittedly white and affluent, which is exactly what the racial preferences that Harvard defends want to prevent.
The legal argument is that the ALDC’s preferences, like the 13th strike of the clock, undermine everything Harvard says about increasing diversity, and are therefore sufficient grounds for abandoning Harvard’s current admissions process. But regardless of the legal issue, the use of legacy preferences raises important policy questions for all colleges that use them. If colleges want to increase diversity, they should follow the example of elite institutions like Caltech, which never had legacy preferences, or Amherst College, Johns Hopkins University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which eliminated them. And as the evidence shows, these preferences matter a lot.
The admissions process to Harvard College (which admits undergraduates to Harvard) begins with determinations in five categories that are assigned numerical scores: academic, extracurricular, athletic, scholastic support, and personal and overall GPA. In addition, Harvard specifically considers the race of applicants in its efforts to create a diverse entering class.
Legacy preference significantly undermines Harvard’s stated goals in the undergraduate admissions process in several ways. First, although the records do not contain specific data on the races of Harvard alumni, its dean of admissions has acknowledged that older applicants are less ethnically diverse than the applicant pool as a whole. In other words, if Harvard were to simply eliminate this preference and open up the legacy-awarded seats to the general applicant pool, it would lower the percentage of white students and thereby advance the stated goal of gaining greater diversity. As the trial judge noted, “If all your bequests are white and all your donors are white, then the greater [preference] pool, your school population is becoming less diverse in a way, isn’t it?’
Another admissions goal of the college is to provide an opportunity for students who have experienced significant hardship in their lives to enjoy the benefits of a Harvard education and a Harvard degree. They include students whose family members did not attend college, which by definition would not include legacy. Harvard classifies a student as disadvantaged as one whose parents earn less than $80,000 a year. Children in lower-income homes may also have had to work in high school. If so, it will reduce their ability to participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities, which would lower their objective grades and put them further behind to begin with. While not all legacy applicants come from families with incomes above $80,000, the vast majority likely do, so providing legacy aid is inconsistent with the goal of admitting more students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Finally, applicants who come from homes of former students, where parental support can improve a student’s academic performance and where applicants can afford SAT prep classes and tutoring, generally have significant advantages in the admissions process.
Other ALDC preferences raise similar doubts about their consistency with Harvard’s stated goals. Harvard’s athletic recruiting program is not limited to football and men’s basketball, but extends to all sports, both men’s and women’s. According to the college’s website, those sports include skiing, golf, squash, fencing, sailing, ice hockey, field hockey and lacrosse, none of which are known to attract large numbers of youth from minority, inner-city or otherwise disadvantaged. And because there are so many unisex teams, the number of athletes recruited is large and therefore has a significant impact on Harvard’s efforts to recruit racial minorities and students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The court record did not contain a breakdown of the racial composition of each of the ALDC preferences, but the appeals court did include a finding on the racial composition of all admitted applicants and applicants admitted to the ALDC, which clearly shows how the ALDC preferences reduce diversity in the entering class.
Additionally, as the Court of Appeals noted, ALDC applicants “have a significantly greater chance of being accepted than non-ALDC applicants.” While only 5 percent of all applicants have an ALDC preference, 30 percent are accepted. Of course, many ALDC members could be admitted without any preference, but given the racial differences between ALDC applicants and everyone else, ALDC preferences almost certainly have the effect of creating a whiter and less disadvantaged pool of admitted students than would have been the case if those ALDC preferences had been eliminated. While eliminating ALDC preferences alone may not ensure that Harvard achieves the levels of racial and socioeconomic diversity it desires, it will come much closer by removing ALDC preferences that make it more difficult for Harvard to achieve its goals.
The evidence Harvard offered in defense of the legacy was scant at best. As Dean Rakesh Khurana described the reason for this preference, “Harvard hopes that its alumni will remain connected to the faculty for the rest of their lives and [legacy preferences] is one of the ways he encourages them to do so.”
Our institutions are venerable, I think that is the right word, because they have been revered for many, many years by many alumni who have come to love our universities and what they have to offer. It is only right that they believe that it would be wonderful if their children enjoyed the same benefits that they enjoyed as students.
These are Harvard’s best legacies-supporting witnesses. Their testimony can be summarized as follows: We love our students, they help us, so we will help them with priority enrollment of their children. And make no mistake, the acceptance rate for non-legacy and non-athlete candidates is about 4.5 percent, while in 2017 and 2018, legacies were accepted at rates of 35.4 percent and 33.3 percent. Or, from another perspective, “55 percent of legacies that are academic 1 and 2 [the highest rankings] are accepted compared to 15 percent of all other academic 1s and 2s.”
In relation to the elimination of legacy and other ALDC preferences, another point is worth mentioning. The Court need not speculate on whether and how an untested set of additional procedures would affect Harvard’s admissions system. The numbers make it very clear that if ALDC preferences were eliminated, Harvard’s goals of increasing racial diversity and adding more disadvantaged students to the class would be advanced, if not fully achieved.
Whether or not the Supreme Court upholds Harvard’s admissions system, the message to all colleges and universities should be clear: If you want to increase racial and socioeconomic diversity, the easiest step you can take is to eliminate legacies of preferences.